The greatest joy of LiveJournal, and other similar proto-social networks and chat rooms, was their uselessness. There was no reason for any of us to be there, not really. […] That uselessness was precisely the thing that the internet offered: this was a place you visited to get nothing done, a place where nothing counted or lasted with benefits or consequences.
Perhaps more than anything else, what has sucked all of the joy out of the social internet in its current form is its exhortation to be useful. We have arrived at a version where everything seems to be just another version of LinkedIn. Every online space is supposed to get you a job or a partner or a stronger personal brand so you can accomplish the big, public-record goals of life. The public marketplace is everywhere. It’s an interactive and immersive CV, an archive. It all counts, and it all matters.
Helena Fitzgerald on ghost towns.
While I am an advocate for the “useless” web, I do think there’s an element of rose-tinted nostalgia going on here.
The early internet—at least, in as much as I remember it—wasn’t so much about being (in the article’s words) “useless”, i.e. done purely for one’s own self, but rather a series of ad hoc experiments done while people tried to figure out how to be “useful”, i.e. how to do things popular with others. Online popularity has always been A Thing. You remember BlogShares? Those five little rate-my-blog squares? Exclusive webrings/cliques? “XHTML/CSS compliant”? “Tutorials” sections? Yes, this shit has been going for years.
What I think has changed is that the metrics for “utility” have been a) formalized, b) monetized, and c) moved into corporate hands. Before, participation in the attention economy was mostly driven by individual motivations; vanity, curiosity, an earnest desire to connect with others, or just honest-to-gods being-a-cool-person-ness. Nowadays, though, “utility” is driven by commercial platform owners whose profits directly depend on the “average utility” of their users, and thus spend billions on engineering their systems to constantly try and wring more “utility” out of everyone (more likes, more sign-ups, more ad impressions). The visibility of this “utility” has become ubiquitous. We wonder why Boys These Days seem so obsessed with lobster serotonin and “T-levels” and “canthal tilt” and other bullshit measurements of “status”… and yet they’re also the generation who’ve grown up in a social environment measured, externally and numerically (subscribers, followers, monthly donations), on a global scale.
Forget napkins and diamonds and all that bullshit; this is my generation’s actual broken legacy. Boomers destroyed the economy and the environment, Gen X destroyed giving a shit about things, and Millennials destroyed the idea of doing things for the heck of it. Even the expression, “doing things for the heck of it”, has been replaced by “utility” phrases, “doing it for the Vine” et al., that reinforce corporate ownership and empirical-yet-meaningless “social metrics”. We connected the world and told it to measure itself, and never really thought about what that would mean.
Well. This is what it means. And I doubt we’ve seen the last of it yet.